The Augurs of the Temple

In my 8th grade ancient history class one of the great questions of the year involves whether or not one believes that Greece or Rome was the superior civilization.  The students usually get into heated discussions on the issue and seem quite excited by the question–until they discover that they have to write a long essay about it for the final exam.  Somehow, this dampens their ardor.

Comparisons between Greece and Rome can always yield fruit.  Each civilization has significant primary source documentation.  Their development overlaps and departs at points like a figure eight.  Both civilizations had similar climates, were right near the Mediterranean, with mountains forming a large part of the topography.  Both civilizations started out a city-states and transitioned from kings/tyrants (in the technical sense of the word) to a republic/democracy at almost exactly the same time.

But despite these similarities, Rome grew into one of the largest global empires of all time and Greece stayed within its narrow confines for the vast majority of its history and never expanded as Rome did.  I thought of this question recently because Michael Rostovtzeff raised it in the early pages of his book on Rome.*  He saw more similarity between Greece and Rome than others, and so had to account for the differences in their historical development in ways that those who see more difference between the two could ignore.

I agree with Rostovtzeff’s rejection of purely mechanical or physical explanations.  Some argue that geography can explain the difference.  Greece’s geography hemmed them in and forced the creation of independent city-states, whereas Italy’s geography allowed for more expansion.  But Rostovtzeff points out that both areas had relatively the same interaction with mountains and the Mediterranean.  Italy’s soil had an advantage, but not a great enough advantage to explain Rome’s expansion.  And while Greece’s topography had more mountains to contend with, occasionally certain city-states built empires, showing that geography itself cannot explain the difference.

He then goes on to assert that we can explain Rome’s expansion, and Greece’s relative lack of territorial expansion, to the following:

  • Rome had a better political structure, which allowed for more effective and consistent mobilization of the population, and
  • Rome’s political changes came slowly, which prevented shocks to the system that would inevitably derail or delay a civilization’s growth.  Such shocks could be compared to long bouts of illness in an individual.

I certainly prefer these explanations to geographical explanations, but I feel one needs to go deeper.  Politics flows downstream from culture, and culture from religion, and it is here that I feel the answer must lie.  To get at religious differences we need to look not at particular beliefs or religious rites, but what those beliefs and rites point to.  To get at that question, we need to examine their mythologies, for if nothing else, it shows us how they perceived themselves and gets at their motivations.

On the surface of things Greece and Rome look much alike, but their myths tell a different story.  The story of Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, reveals the Greek passion for perfection.  Pygmalion eschews women because none he sees truly merit his affection.  He carves his thoughts into a perfect stone sculpture, and Aphrodite rewards him for his devotion by having the statue come to life, and they live happily ever after.  We see this pursuit of perfection in other areas of Greek life, in the Parthenon, in their mathematical idealism, and so on.

When Livy writes of Rome’s early days he recounts how Romulus and the early founders of Rome–all men–needed women. So they come up with an idea of a religious festival and invited young ladies from the Sabines. When they came they abducted and forcibly marry them.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and – dearest of all to human nature – would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion – a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature.

The tenor of this story fits well within the framework of the rest of Livy’s work.  The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, has some of the same heroic qualities as in the founding myths of other civilizations.  But the story have Romulus kill his brother Remus in a fit of temper for a minor dispute, and the tale takes little pains to justify the deed.

I think that Livy has more actual history in him than others might, but even I would not say that Livy writes history as Thucydides wrote history.  So we must consider why Rome’s foundational stories have this different feel and emphasis.  Two possibilities present themselves:

  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that they did not whitewash things.  They called a spade a spade.  They did not hide the truth about themselves, and so they were much better equipped to deal with reality than those around them
  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that, not only did they not hide their warts, they reveled in them.  In fact, stories like the Romulus/Remus story would not have been viewed as a black spot on their past, but rather, a positive good.  Of all the soft civilizations that surrounded them, Rome and Rome only did what needed to be done.  Rome understood, just as Machiavelli understood, that states need founded by one man, and one man only.  Either Romulus or Remus would have to go, twins or not.

I favor the second option.  If we imagine that Rome’s founding myths and folklore follow the general pattern of most every other civilization (the U.S. included), we should imagine that these stories reflect something of an idealized version of themselves.

Some years ago in our 8th grade ancient history class, a student made a striking comment as we discussed exactly what Rome “meant” by their multiple conquests.  What drove them to expand?  Rome’s religion technically forbade offensive war, and yet Rome never lacked a justification for war when they felt they needed one.  The student suggested that the Romans were not unlike the Assyrians.  The Assyrians conquered (in part at least) as an offering to Ashur, their god of war.  The Romans (though certainly not as rapacious or cruel as the Assyrians) conquered as offering to their god as well, except their god was the city of Rome itself.  Greece could occupy itself with abstractions like ideal perfection but Rome remained very physical in their orientation throughout.  Their god was literally made visible all of the time.  Thus, this physical orientation would require very tangible applications.

Perhaps the key to Rome’s expansion vis a vis Greece lies here.

Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . .

Machiavelli surmises that the Romans wisely manipulated their religion to serve their political or cultural needs.  I agree as far his explanation goes, but I think we can go one further.  The Romans had a conscious religion of oracles, auguries, and the like, but a deeper, perhaps even unconscious religion of worship of their city itself.  I’m not so sure that Appius would have received censure had he been victorious.

I remain grateful to this student, who years ago helped me see the history of Rome in a new light.


*Though it has little to do with the post above, I cannot resist commenting on some reviews of Rostovtzeff’s work.  He emigrated from Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution.  His experience of events in Russia certainly impacted his analysis of Rome, where he saw the decline of the Republic in terms of 1) Too much change too quickly, and 2) Given the size of Rome, too much power shifted into the hands of too many (he felt that democracies needed to be small in size to work well).

Some dismiss him out of hand, because, obviously, his experience in Russia strongly colored his analysis of Roman politics.  Well, ok.  But a man is surely more than his influences.  What of the merits of Rostovtzeff’s analysis?  It can be debated, but his interpretations is hardly crazy, or such an obvious byproduct of personal experience that it has nothing to do with the evidence.  These same reviewers, I’m sure, would not want their own work subjected to the tests they used for Rostovtzeff.

Though C.S. Lewis’ original discussion of the “personal heresy” applied directly to poetry, I think it applies also to works of history as well, which are acts of creation somewhat akin to poetry.


11th Grade: Lord Grantham vs. the 49ers


This week we looked briefly at the California Gold Rush of 1848-49, where I want to touch on a few different issues:

1. The link with land and opportunity

Americans since early colonization often associated this country with opportunity – be it economic or religious in nature.  The Gold Rush did not present the lure of an easy life with easy riches.  Travel was long and dangerous, finding gold was not guaranteed, nor could you be sure to protect your claim.  Still, the possibility of changing your circumstance, of making something for yourself, proved irresistible to thousands.  The idea of opportunity has always been powerful for Americans. Often this idea of opportunity was linked with land.  We talked last year about how absurd the Americans must have seemed to the British with our near obsession for land.  After all, even before the Louisiana Purchase we far exceeded England in terms of size.  Today we still link home ownership, for example, with independence.

We can trace part of the difference in our approach to land in the different cultures.  In England many lived and worked due to the patronage of a benefactor, usually someone in the aristocracy.  In America the idea of patronage ran counter to our “do it yourself” mindset of personal independence.  There is a lot to say for our attitudes.

But we should not view this European mindset as mere laziness.  Many felt that if one had the means to hire a maid and a gardener, you had a duty to hire them and provide jobs.  It could be considered part of the duties of one’s “station in life.”  At its best, this mindset produced a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Mrs. Mathwin was a big fan of Downton Abbey, and I saw one scene where Matthew (who feels that all the servants are waste of time and money) is upbraided by Lord Grantham, who asks Matthew to think about where the butler will go if he had no job at Downton.  The best aristocratic tradition saw having servants as a means to provide for others.  But without a “benefactor class” in America, individuals had to make their own way, and land always played a key role in making that happen.

It is this belief in independence and opportunity that led many to oppose slavery who were not necessarily generous in their attitude to blacks.  This attitude can be just as puzzling to us today as those who favored slavery in the name of liberty.  But many Californians opposed slavery because slavery represented being rich enough to hire someone else to do your dirty work.  In this line of thinking, slavery stood against the “do it yourself” ethic inherent in the 49ers, and so stood against the idea of independence and liberty.  But we should be careful of thinking too highly of their motives.  Again, many of them had no love for blacks per se, however much they opposed slavery.  Others in the North shared this same attitude.  Unfortunately, strict abolitionists were a distinct minority.

2. Institutions Travel

It is probable that many of the 49er’s simply thought of themselves as seeking their fortune.  But institutions and economies would inevitably travel with them.  With money came the need to protect it, and for that you ultimately need political institutions (unless you would prefer lawlessness and spoils going to the strongest).  In our own Gold Rush Game played this week, students probably let the ‘individualism’ of the game go too far, and their hesitancy to form towns led to many of them being ‘killed’ by a rich outlaw.  The game will have to be tweaked a bit more next year to give more incentive to the formation of banks and towns.

3. Cultures Linger

As a curious side note, the names of the towns created by the Gold Rush reveals a lot about the people there.  In contrast to much of the rest of the county that named towns with European associations (i.e. New York), Biblical references (i.e. Providence, Rhode Island), virtues (Philadelphia) or a virtuous past (i.e. Cincinatti for the Roman Cincinattus, and Columbus, Ohio).  Gold Rush towns had very different names like Devil’s Thumb, Rough and Ready, Hangtown, etc.  Clearly, many came to California with entirely different goals and outlook than those that settled North America initially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  There are those that say that California today marches to a different drummer than other parts of the country, and clearly this has its roots dating to the Gold Rush. The culture of a particular place will often have deeper roots than we think, and our actions have longer ripple effects than we usually imagine.

I will look forward to updating you next week, when we delve deeper in the slavery question and other issues that began to split the country in the 1850’s.

Dave Mathwin

Tolerating Toleration

I have written on a few occasions that those who write history books can fall into one of two errors:

  • Over-emphasizing the differences between things, which means that nothing can be compared to anything with any confidence, and
  • Over-emphasizing the similarities between things, which these days means that everyone is either Hitler or Stalin.

The best historians combine factual mastery with poetic gifts. They see rhyme and rhythm, but they never force it, letting the “occasional” square pegs stand aside from the round holes when appropriate.*

The first error (the “differences” error) is more useful. If you over-emphasize particular facts at the expense of synthesis, you have hopefully uncovered many useful pieces of information. But these kinds of historians are in my view not really historians, but researchers. They have definite skills, but play too close to the vest. Without extending themselves and taking a risk, they limit their impact.

The second error involves more chutzpah and dash, and so I tend to be more forgiving to those who synthesize too much. Toynbee, one of my great heroes, conflated Greek and Roman civilizations to such a degree that he claimed that Rome began its decline in 431 B.C., the year the Peloponnesian War started in Greece. Such an assertion perhaps has some grandeur in its theatricality. But no one could claim that this whopper arose from intellectual laziness on his part.

Other times, however, errors of the second kind can only arise from a combination of laziness and willful blindness. These types of errors of the “Over-emphasizing similarities” school are more dangerous than the “differences” school. When you aim higher, you fall farther.

One “similarities” error that has lingered on in the scholarship of late antiquity, and subsequently in the public consciousness, involves the interplay between Christianity post-Constantine and the older paganism. Sir Geoffrey Elton–a knight no less!–expresses this basic idea concisely, writing,

. . . religions organized in powerful churches and in command of the field persecute as a matter of course and tend to regard toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards whatever deity they worship. Among the religious, toleration is demanded by the persecuted who need it if they are to be triumphant, when, all too often, they then persecute in their turn. . . . To say this is not cynicism but sobriety of judgment.

Ugh–one can just imagine Sir Geoffrey Elton saying this with some British smugness. Intolerable, I say! It just won’t do!

So, Elton, followed by Peter Garnsey, and Francois Paschoud on the French side–and a host of others–mash everything up and declare that basically no difference existed between the intolerance of Rome towards Christians, and intolerance of Christians towards Roman pagans.

But even a brief look at this assertion shows its utter fatuity.

How did Rome persecute Christians? Over a span of 250 years (though not continuous over that period, but sporadic in its intensity) Rome imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Christians. Many died in a gruesome manner, as even Roman sources hostile to Christians attest. By the late empire, feeding Christians to lions in the arena was old hat. Even mild, tolerant, and “good” emperors like Trajan admitted that, yes, if push came to shove, Pliny should arrest and even execute Christians.

How did Christians persecute pagan Romans once in “command of the field?” They closed and sometimes destroyed temples. They refused to give state funding for pagan rites. They closed the Academy of Athens. Some sporadic–and important to note–non-state sponsored violence probably happened in some instances. One can cite the era of Theodosius I, from AD 379-395, where

hands and feet . . . were broken; their faces and genitals smashed . . .

But this violence was not directed at people but at the statues of gods and goddesses. However “purposeful” and “vindictive” (as one historian terms it) such actions may have been, it is not quite the same thing as watching people eaten alive for entertainment.**

Enter historian Peter Brown to set the record partially aright. Alas, I have only slight exposure to Brown, an acknowledged master of late Roman antiquity. My first impressions peg him tending towards the “differences” error, but this might suit him well to clean up the typical sludge created by Elton et. al. on this issue. He entitled chapter 1 of his work Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World, “Christianization: Narratives and Processes,” which can only elicit one response:

But chapter two deals with the question of religious toleration in a much more promising manner.

Brown points out a few helpful counterpoints to Elton and his crew.

Most every ruler’s first priority involves money, which comes mostly through taxation. Any ruler of moderate ability understands the tricky nature of taxation, and how it relies upon a network of trust and compliance that is not easily enforced. Brown comments,

It is easy to assume that a tax system . . . so successful, indicated the indomitable will of the emperors to control the souls of their subjects as surely as they had come to control their wealth. In fact, the exact opposite may be the case. In most areas, the system of negotiated consensus was usually stretched to its limits by the task of exacting taxes. It had little energy left to give ‘bite’ to intolerant policies in matters of religion. It is no surprise that many sources indicate a clear relation between taxation and toleration. Faced by demands of Porphyry of Gaza for permission to destroy the temples of the city, supposedly in 400, the emperor Arcadius is presented as having said: ‘I know the city is full of idols, but it shows “devotio” in paying taxes and contributes much to the treasury. If we suddenly terrorize these people, they will run away, and we lose considerable revenues.”

Brown also stresses that late imperial Rome even in the Christian era involved shared power among elites. And these elites had strong common bonds between them that crossed religious lines. Brown writes again,

As far as the formation of the new governing class of the post-Constantinian empire was concerned, the fourth century was very definitely not a century overshadowed by [religious conflict]. Nothing could have been more distressing to the Roman upper-classes than the suggestion that ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ were overriding designations in their style of life and choice of friends and allies. . . . Rather . . . studied ambiguity and strong loyalty to common symbolic forms . . . prevailed at this time.

Pagan and Jewish religious leaders, Brown notes, received not just toleration, but sometimes even support from the empire.

It would be wrong to imply, as Menachem Stern has done, that [Libanius and the rabbi Hillel] . . . found themselves drawn together “under the yoke of Christian emperors.” They were drawn together by common enjoyment of an imperial system that conferred high status on them both. . . . Both enjoyed high honorary rank, conferred by imperial codicilli–those precious purple letters of personal esteem signed by Theodosius in his own hand.

Theodosius, it bears mentioning, is often thought of as one of the great “intolerant” emperors.

So far, well and good. Brown, with his eye for detail and his great reluctance to generalize, gives an admirable riposte to the traditional academic narrative. But something still needs addressed. Brown blocks effectively, but asserts little beyond, “It wasn’t as clear cut as many think,” he seems to say. But everything is complicated. The historian should at least offer a way to make the complicated intelligible.

Alas, the elephant is still in the room, in the form of two important questions for scholars like Elton and Garnsey–questions that Brown fails to ask:

The first: toleration may be a good thing, but what are its limits? One can praise the virtue of getting along despite differences. Everyone knows this already, however. It’s not a hard thing to say. The hard thing means saying when the differences have become so great that co-existence no longer works, when the house divided cannot stand.

Drawing this line ultimately comes down to values, and values come from religious beliefs. My second question to Elton, etc. would be, “What is your religion? You seem to be neither pagan, nor Christian–and that’s fine. But what or who is your God/god? And what does He/She/It not like? What do you not tolerate? Surely He/She/It can’t like everything.

Brown avoids such questions, and that’s too bad. He has my respect, and a historian of his heft should apply his knowledge to this problem. As for our own situation in our own time, such questions have unfortunately become more than just theoretical. I believe that the media accentuates the differences between Americans for profit. Also, professional tweeters are more divided than average Americans. But a breaking point lies out there somewhere for all of us. We must acknowledge this, and at the same time, hope that we never find it.


*This observation might seem quite obvious, and so it is. But it is rooted in the profound truth of the nature of the Trinity–unity and diversity at the root of all being.

**I admit this is not the whole truth of all of Christian history. There were times and places where it got worse than this in the next 1000 years. But though it did at times get worse than what I describe above, it never equaled what Rome did.

9th/10th Grade: Pride and Insanity


This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors.  After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

There is  good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all.  Duty bound, he did not shrink from service.  In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite.  His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man.  As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.

His time in power raises a few questions:

As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant?  Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster?   I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of.  He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians.  It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.

Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively.  But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image.  They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.

Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem.   Tiberius took his unpopularity personally.  He grew distant and sullen.  The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri.  His isolation forced him to trust a select few.  When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails.  Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges.  Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.”  Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.

So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula.  With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.

Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms.  Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims.  In normal society he would have been an annoying brat.  Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.

As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.

Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes).  We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality.  This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear.  A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.

Can a person make oneself insane through their actions?  We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity.  The same might be said of Caligula.

Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.


Dave Mathwin

Liberty and Coercion

Almost every political philosopher I am aware of from Aristotle down through Montesquieu believed that a democracy/republic had to be small in size.  Self-government required, among other things:

  • A population where people know each other enough to trust each other to some degree.
  • A population where people can have enough land to support themselves, but a geography that does not allow any one particular faction to have too much land, thus gaining too much of an advantage over their fellows.
  • A relatively culturally homogeneous population that shares core values

The American experiment is unique in many ways, one of which being that Jefferson and Madison attempted to turn this reasoning on its head.  They argued that

  • Democracies/Republics floundered because of too much population concentration, not too little.
  • These population concentrations gave way to passions and factionalism that could easily destroy liberty by trampling on the minority (cf. Madison’s brilliant Federalist #10).
  • Hence, what Democracies/Republics need is not a small geography, but a large one.  People need to spread out so that 1) All will be sure to have land, and 2) No one particular faction could concentrate its power enough to override the rights of minorities (hence, Jefferson’s impetus for his semi-Constitutional Louisiana Purchase).

Maybe necessity helped them invent these ideas, maybe it sprung direct out of their heads.  Either way, with this reasoning Madison and Jefferson show their genius, confidence, and perhaps, their arrogance.  I have wondered if one might not view the whole of American history through the lens of this question: Were Jefferson and Madison right or wrong?*

I expected Gary Gerstle’s Liberty and Coercion to take on the grand question of the thorny question of the interaction between liberty and power, and how sometimes “liberty” for oneself means power over others.  Instead, he narrowed his focus and proceeded in a methodical way to show how over time the “police power” of the federal government grew.  Gerstle disappointed me by never exploring the relationship of our founding ideals to this question.  But at times his narrower focus allows him to make some incisive observations.

For example . .  .

Many presidents and perhaps many Americans had a desire to act in some measure of good faith with Native Americans, but things never went right.  Some might explain this via a grand clash of civilizations.  Gerstle looks instead at the inherent dilemmas posed by our philosophic commitments.  Our commitment to self-government limited the scope of federal government.  No one, whether a Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic/Republican or the like, believed that a large professional army went well with liberty.  But with no money and no political will to even create agencies to establish firm borders and grant land titles, let alone enforce such borders militarily, various presidents found themselves giving in to the settlers “squatters rights.”  We wanted to prevent the national government from having too much power to coerce, but without this power, settlers had the liberty and the power to coerce others.

Time and time again, our sheer size made the relationship between governmental power and self-government difficult.

A similar line of reasoning happened with non-WASP immigrants, be they Catholics from Ireland/southern Europe or Asians settling in the west.  They did not have the same rights as others, but how could they?  For communal self-government relied on shared religious and cultural beliefs and habits.  If these immigrants did have these same values, they could possibly participate in the democracy.  Gerstle shared Teddy Roosevelt’s fury and frustration with the treatment of Japanese migrants in the U.S. just as he was negotiating sensitive deals with Japan.  But he had no ability to force local governments to do as he wished.

Here Gerstle misses an opportunity to connect our dilemmas with our founding ideology.  American colonization began with the idea of transplanting certain distinct communities intact.  But by the later 18th century Enlightenment ideas led to the bold “All men are created equal” mindset of the Declaration.  Simultaneously, America had no real justification to exclude anyone from its shores, but neither could they practice local, autonomous, self-government if they did.

The history of political philosophy has its revenge–or at least makes itself known.

Of course slavery is the preeminent manifestation of this dilemma.  On the one hand, I think most of the founders knew that slavery ran against their moral principles as a nation.  But their political principle of limiting the power of national government meant granting a lot of autonomy to the states.  The clash of these two propositions embedded the possibility of civil war into the fabric of our origins.

Gerstle cites one illuminating aspect of this problem that I had not heard of before.  After Nat Turner’s rebellion many abolitionist presses mailed anti-slavery publications “free of charge” to the South.  This infuriated President Jackson, who believed that such publications only sought to stir up more trouble.  He asked for Congress to ban their mailing.

But southerner John C. Calhoun recognized that such a ban would not serve southern interests.  They would gain in the short term but give away one of their core principles–the right of states to decide such questions.  He advocated against the ban.  But many states arrived at a solution by instructing local postal workers to simply not deliver this mail.  This at best awkward compromise could only last so long, however much it tried to resolve federal and state issues.**

States were seen early on as the means by which well-ordered communities could be established.  Thus, they had broad ranging police power.  The constitution reflects this by enumerating the powers of the federal government and giving everything else to the states.  Today the power of states is much weaker relative to even just a few generations ago.

This changed in stages.

The Industrial Revolution may have done more damage to the vision of the founders than any president or political party.  It broke down local rural life and lumped most people together in the cities as one amorphous mass.  Such conditions created a national state. Without any direct power to act, the government outsourced, deputizing local civic groups to undertake tasks related to civil order.

Whatever the successes such organizations had, they were destined for embarrassing failures.  They discriminated against blacks and immigrants.  They imprisoned without fair trials, and so on, all in the name of the Justice Department.  They needed stopped, but the only way to do so involved finding a way to increase the power of the national government.

Over time the national government used various legal strategies mostly related to the 14th amendment and the commerce clause to achieve their aims.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution destroyed the possibility of self-government that our constitution depends on.  Rather than create a new constitution, we sought to stretch certain enumerated powers far beyond their original purpose.  Much hay has been made of the commerce clause, for example, which many conservatives lament.  However, our military and national defense (an issue dear to many conservatives) has also assumed a shape utterly unrecognizable to anyone who lived before W.W. II.  The size and cost of our military has in turn stretched the power of the presidency far beyond the vision of the constitution.  Gerstle cites many examples of how our military ballooned in size and then rapidly decreased when conflicts ceased.  Of course we can cite the strategic dilemmas faced by the U.S. after W.W. II as a justification for maintaining a large military.  In a very real sense, W.W. II did not end until 1989.

Strategic considerations aside, we should speculate if any other forces influenced this shift.

Eighteenth-century theorists drew upon the “citizen-soldiers” of times past.  Greece and Rome both provided examples of this.  On the one hand, we cannot have a militarized state, which would jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, we need national defense.  A nation of property owners motivated by legitimate self-interest would certainly rally to defend their land, their communities, if need be.  The first 175 years (give or take) of our history demonstrated this.  Right up through the end of W.W. I we demonstrated the ability to dramatically expand and contract the size of our military.

Perhaps our strategic situation changed so dramatically in 1945 that it necessitated the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Or perhaps it was we ourselves that changed.  Gerstle does not speculate.

Embedded in this question is the relationship between liberty and order.  We have always recognized the need for someone to have the final say, and the need for people to “pursue happiness” in the way they see fit.  This has always meant tolerating things one may disagree with.  Should we ban pornography or not?  Do we grant the freedom of some to own slaves?  Do we grant the freedom of some to oppose same-sex marriages?  Who gets to decide?

Gerstle’s book rather prosaically shows how this power to decide has transferred over time from the states to the federal government.  This happened mainly under Democratic leadership.  But conservatives also played a role at crucial times with their traditional issues of national defense/military.  By “prosaically” I don’t mean that it was easy or unconvincing.  He has extensive research and uses a methodical style that makes him quite convincing.  But he leaves us with some unexplored questions and neglects to swing for the fences.

He makes clear the fact that ideas of liberty and coercion have always existed.  All we have done over time is basically transferred the power of coercion from the state to the national government.  As to whether representative government can exist in the post-industrial era, as to whether or not Jefferson was right or wrong, these grand questions go largely untouched.  I for one can’t help but admire the brilliance and confident boldness of Jefferson’s vision–though I think I disagree.  I wish Gerstle had done a bit more to inspire me one way or another, and done a bit more to help answer the perplexing question of the nature of America’s idea of liberty.


*Another possible historical lens would be the “wheel of fortune”–the idea that every civilization (and every ruler?) will experience a kind of boom/bust cycle.  The medievals would argue, I think, that this cycle was meant to teach us about redemption.  This lens would argue that some choices could delay the progress of the cycle perhaps even for a long time, but that “nothing lasts forever” and that some kind of decline remains inevitable.

Again, this idea had a historically long run, from the ancients down through Machiavelli at least.  Our founders, many of them heirs to the Enlightenment, would not have accepted this idea.

**The same held true for the Fugitive Slave Act.  Most pro-slavery advocates rejoiced at the new provisions of the law, but others saw that to achieve this they abandoned a key principle of keeping the federal government away from the slavery issue.

Without question slavery is a terrible moral evil.  We must realize that the issue had other dimensions to understand the colonial and ante-bellum period.  We may deplore the actions of another country or culture.  When should we use force to change them?  By what authority?

11th/12th Grade: Negative and Positive Liberty

Greetings to all,

As I mentioned at Orientation, the class this years is entitled, “American History” even though we will not spend the entirety of our time studying America particularly.  Still, 19th and 20th century America will receive special focus.  In light of this, I introduced a few key questions that will form the backdrop of our study this year:

  • What does it mean to be an American?
  • Is America unique?  If so, in what way?  Our founders indeed believed that America did represent something unique in its time, but our way of life has influenced others over time.  If we are no longer unique, how has that impacted our sense of identity?
  • Many have commented that America gets birthed from an idea, rather than “within history.”  What advantages and disadvantages does this bring, and how has this impacted us?

Hopefully students will enjoy grappling with these difficult questions.

We began the year looking quickly at the early American presidents during the years 1788-1800.  The founders did much to lay down on paper a workable outline of government in the Constitution.  But the Constitution could not answer every question or foresee every circumstance that would arise.  How would the principles laid down in the Constitution work themselves out in real life?  Nowhere does the Consitution explicitly guarantee the right to privacy, for example, but does that mean we don’t have that right?  Does the Constitution forbid what it does not explicitly allow, or does it allow what it does not explicitly forbid?  The founders themselves did not agree on this question, and the Constitution does not say one way or the other.

We looked at the transformation of American democracy under Andrew Jackson, and this ultimately led to discussions on the following topics:

1. Do we elect our representatives because of their wisdom, experience, etc. (the attitude of George Washington), or to simply be ‘the voice of the people (more of Andrew Jackson’s idea)?  Do we want our representatives to follow their own ideas and convictions, or to follow the opinion polls?

2. In some ways, Jackson was our first “American” president.  Washington, Jefferson, Monroe — all of them had an essentially European style upbringing and education.  Jackson grew up on the frontier without the formal training.  Previously, government was for the “best” men to rule on the people’s behalf.  Jackson believed that if he could be president, certainly anyone could be Secretary of State.  He began the so-called “Spoils System” by rewarding his political friends with government posts.  However distasteful this might be, it had its roots in a passionate belief in equality, that no one should be thought of as “elite.”  His inaugural celebration had a much more loose and informal feel than that of his predecessors.

3. Just at the end of class Friday I introduced  political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s formulation of ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ liberty.  Does liberty mean freedom from outside constraint, or are we not truly free unless directed toward a greater good, as the Puritans might have argued?  Do restaurants rob smokers of their liberty by banning them, or does that ban in fact enhance the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale second-hand smoke?  Non-smokers are certainly in the majority, but every democracy must protect minority rights to be considered a democracy at all.  How much, and what kind, of protection should minorities receive?  This becomes all the more problematic when extending rights to the minority means the minority inconveniences the majority.

The interesting and problematic part of this debate is that both sides believe they are enhancing liberty.  The restaurant that allows smoking everywhere believes that they are simply letting people do what they choose to do, even if the choice is a bad one.  What business is it of theirs what people do with their lives?  Who are they to make choices for others?  On the other side, some would say that such ‘liberty’ is in fact liberty only for the minority to do as they please.  The ‘liberty’ of some is ‘oppression’ for others forced to breathe in the smoke.  With everyone smoking in restaurants, the freedom of non-smokers to eat where they please has significant limits.

Many of our political debates, I feel, may have something to do with these different definitions of liberty.

Of course this discussion of liberty cannot divorced in our context from a discussion of slavery, and may help us understand why many came to defend slavery in the name of liberty.  To help us understand slavery in America we will look briefly at the history of slavery at some point next week.  Why did it disappear in the Middle Ages?  Why did it start to return in the Renaissance?  Was indentured servitude slavery?  Why did slavery linger in the South?  Why did we not ‘solve’ the slavery question with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution?  Below I include the brief reading selections I gave the students on the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” liberty if you would like to read yourself.

Next week we will look at the expansion of America to the west and south in the 1840’s, and what impact this had on the political climate of the period.  I look forward to a wonderful year.

Dave Mathwin


Negative and Positive Conceptions of Liberty

Negative Liberty

Philosophers such as Locke or Adam Smith or, in some moods, Mill, believed that social harmony and progress were compatible with reserving a large area for private life over which neither the State nor any other authority must be allowed to trespass. Hobbes, and those who agreed with him, especially conservative or reactionary thinkers, argued that if men were to be prevented from destroying one another and making social life a jungle or a wilderness, greater safeguards must be instituted to keep them in their places; he wished correspondingly to increase the area of centralised control and decrease that of the individual. But both sides agreed that some portion of human existence must remain independent of the sphere of social control. To invade that preserve, however small, would be despotism. The most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy, Benjamin Constant, who had not forgotten the Jacobin dictatorship, declared that at the very least the liberty of religion, opinion, expression, property must be guaranteed against arbitrary invasion. Jefferson, Burke, Paine, Mill compiled different catalogues of individual liberties, but the argument for keeping authority at bay is always substantially the same. We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our nature’. We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. But total self-surrender is self-defeating.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate. But whatever the principle in terms of which the area of non-interference is to be drawn, whether it is that of natural law or natural rights, or of utility, or the pronouncements of a categorical imperative, or the sanctity of the social contract, or any other concept with which men have sought to clarify and justify their ‘convictions, liberty in this sense means liberty from, absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable, frontier. ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’, said the most celebrated of its champions.  If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. Indeed, the whole function of law was the prevention I of just such collisions: the State was reduced to what Lassalle contemptuously described as the functions of a night-watchman or traffic policeman. What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself’, civilisation cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market in ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’.

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’  The defence of liberty consists in the ‘negative’ goal of warding off interference. To threaten a man with persecution unless he submits to a life in which he exercises no choices of his goals; to block before him every door but one, no matter how noble the prospect upon which it opens, or how benevolent the motives of those who arrange this, is to sin against the truth that he is a man, a being with a life of his own to live. This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties and individual rights, every protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individualistic, and much disputed, conception of man.

Positive Liberty

One way of making this clear is in terms of the independent momentum which the, initially perhaps quite harmless, metaphor of self-mastery acquired. ‘I am my own master’; ‘I am slave to no man’; but may I not (as Platonists or Hegelians tend to say) be a slave to nature? Or to my own ‘unbridled’ passions? Are these not so many species of the identical genus ‘slave’ – some political or legal, others moral or spiritual? Have not men had the experience of liberating themselves from spiritual slavery, or slavery to nature, and do they not in the course of it become aware, on the one hand, of a self which dominates, and, on the other, of something in them which is brought to heel? This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or with my self at its best.

Dominion and rationality necessarily presuppose freedom. Moreover,  freedom is a necessary condition of morality and love, love cannot be coerced. Man’s freedom and will is at the very heart of man made in God’s image. But as we will see man’s freedom is complex. Freedom has two stages, the first stage of freedom is an imperfect freedom which if used properly leads to perfect freedom. The first stage of freedom is the condition man is in at his creation, it is freedom to choose, I will have the pear and not the banana, I will not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will obey God, I will ignore God.  This kind of simple choice is not perfect and true freedom but only the means by which we achieve true freedom. Perfect freedom in the fullest sense is not about choice. This is the lie of the Devil, we believe that freedom means being free to do what one wants, free to choose for oneself. But true freedom is achieved when man simply becomes, when he comes to the place in his being that  he is free from the possibility of choosing the bad.  St. Augustine distinguishes between “the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin” and “the final freedom… the inability to sin.”  St. Augustine writes in The City of God

Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.  . . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . .   It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?

Rome’s Final Frontier

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at the formation of the Empire under Augustus Caesar.  His leadership gave Rome peace and stability, but this came at a price.  Augustus solved some of the decayed Republic, but his solution created other problems.

Decades of civil war faced Rome with the need for change.  Rome’s society, however, was built on tradition. Augustus carried himself as a leader in the old tradition, but in reality eroded all of the old checks and balances of the Republic.  He was much more careful than his uncle Julius, who made no secret of his power.  In reality, however, Augustus had just as much, if not more power than Julius ever did.  He certainly understood the power inherent in manipulating his image. . .

The problem may not have been the power itself, but the fact that it was done more or less secretly, and so did not encourage Rome to face reality.  We talked of how Rome was in a sense, ‘pretending’ — living in a fantasy land that told them that Rome was still Rome, after all.  This pretending, however, can be dangerous for a civilization, because the tension between your imagination and reality can grow over time.

In their “Res Getae” assignment the students got an idea of the subtlety with which Augustus worked.  He saw what happened to his uncle Julius, and modified his actions accordingly.  He never (or hardly ever) took power, he waited to receive it from others.  He rejected the title of Dictator which would have brought odium upon himself, but he took bits and pieces of other offices that added up to total control in the end, a kind of “majority ownership” of Rome.

Next week we will see that one problem Augustus faced was the German frontier along the Rhine and Danube river.  He was right to recognize its weaknesses.  This map shows the wedge into Roman territory created by the meeting of the Rhine and Danube river.

Do rivers make for good frontiers?  We might think so, for rivers are not easy for armies to cross.  But when compared with mountains or deserts we see that rivers can be quite porous. Neither side, after all, has a barrier to using the river on their side of territory.  Furthermore, most people use rivers for fishing, travel, and commerce.  Thus, rivers often act to bring people together rather than separate them.  The MD/D.C./No. VA area is a good example of this.  Augustus needed a new frontier, a more secure border.

Prudence might dictate falling back to something more secure.  But Augustus built his power in part on the fantasy that Rome had not changed.  Rome never falls back!  He tried to push forward further into Germany to the more advantageous Elbe/Danube frontier, seen here below. . .

and picked the arrogant Varus to command.  Varus fell for Arminius’s trap and led his army to disaster at the Battle of Tuetonburg Forest.  We will discuss how Augustus was right about his frontier being vulnerable, but was he right in his solution?

We shall see that their are limits to what the military can accomplish when the situation requires a  political solution While Rome would win battles against Germans in the future, they could never end their power of resistance.

Next week we will do an activity where I want the students to rethink the Roman frontier.  In the ideal world Rome could have pulled back a great deal.  But of course that would completely ignore political realities.  If he withdrew in one place, would he have to advance in another?  If so, where?  I hope the students enjoyed this change of pace and the chance to view the problem in a different way.

Here is a map of the Empire from a topographical perspective:

Where could Rome get an ‘easy’ victory to allow them to withdraw on the German border?  Where should troops be concentrated?

When we wrap up Augustus we will discuss various aspects of his reign.  He ended a century of civil war and brought peace throughout the Roman empire.  Under his leadership the economy and culture of Rome revived.  The system he established did give Rome stability long after he departed, and as far as masterful politicians go, I would rank Augustus as one of the all-time greats.  On the other hand, while Augustus was very effective, he had to curtail civil liberties to achieve his goals.  He never sought to make Rome face reality, to take them from their current perception of reality at point ‘A’ and bring them to the necessary point ‘B.’  In this way, Augustus lacked true leadership greatness.

After Augustus we will see how the system he established fared under different emperors.  Tiberius and Caligula will get our attention next week.

Many thanks,


8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.



The Emperor Might Need New Clothes

Some years ago my students and I came across a remarkable passage in Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention.  The delegates debated some issue about term limits or representation, when one of the lesser known men commented that, in effect, “this constitution will last us about 75 years, after which we will have to make a new one.”*

This comment passed apparently without much notice or fuss at the Convention in Philadelphia.  Perhaps it was a generally assumed idea, or perhaps they simply had enough trouble in the moment to worry about arguing whether or not their document would last past their grandchildren.

This shocked everyone in class because we think of America like any other country, a more or less solid oak in the earth.  Of course, we have also been brought up with political rhetoric from both parties that venerates the constitution (though perhaps different parts of it).   Because Americans share little besides some form of faith in the Constitution, if that shakes, we all fall down.

Because American history has many unique aspects, I find getting an interpretive handle on our past very difficult.  I have taught American History for about 15 years and have only some educated and less than educated guesses.  Clearly, however, politically and culturally we are currently shifting in some direction or another at the moment.  How should we make sense of it?

One of the more remarkable periods of positive dynamic change occurred in Greece between the years ca. 800-500 B.C.  We know about the Bronze Age, but sometime after the Trojan War Greece descended into a dark age about which we know very little.  Perhaps Homer was the beginning of the rebirth.  Early on in his The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece: 800-500 B.C. Chester Starr makes an interesting point.  Definite ideas or concepts like “equality” or “rights” did not guide the Greeks ca. 800 B.C.  Rather, the concept of eunomia, or “traditional right” formed the basis of Greek social and political interaction.  Sometimes they invoked eunomia against abuse of power by tyrants or aristocrats, at other times aristocrats invoked it rightly against the “mob.”  This flexibility surely gave them good ground on which to innovate.

This stands in contrast to our history.  We founded America on ideas, whether because we thought that the best way to go, or because we had no other choice.  We often agreed on the results we wanted, but rarely on the “why” of that result.  Even early colonial America had a great deal of cultural diversity, at least by 17th century measurements.  We have never really had a shared culture to build upon, except perhaps for a vague sense of Protestantism.

Starr goes to demonstrate that the creation of the much admired political unit of the city-state had at least part of its origins in the desire of the aristocracy to concentrate its power.  Later, asPericles of Athens we know, democracy arose in many Greek city-states, a tribute to the aforementioned flexibility.  But many Greek democracies still had their aristocratic imprint.  The outstanding reformer Pericles made Athens more democratic while definitely living and fashioning himself as an aristocrat, and not as a “man of the people.” His bust makes this clear.

All good things come to end, and the Greek system had played itself out by the time of Alexander, who had little trouble putting it to rest.  Still, all in all, a good run by any measure, one too that makes sense in some clearly defined stages.

In light of Greek history and our own, I offer some some highly speculative thoughts . . .

Theory 1

Since early colonization America has gone through several iterations:

  • Colonial America – 1600-1756
  • Revolutionary America – 1756-1828
  • Jacksonian America – 1828-1860
  • Progressive America – 1860-1929
  • New Deal America – 1929-1965
  • Global Power America – 1965-2001
  • ???

Obviously some of these dates can be disputed and overlap.  Basically, Theory 1 asserts that because America has been rooted in ideas and not culture/tradition, we subject ourselves to significant shifts every 2-3 generations (the first phase doesn’t really count, as we had no concept of an American “nation” until the mid 1700’s).  We can reinterpret our common language on the fly and create “new Americas” every so often–though of course each era has some connections to past eras.  This ability has its strengths and weaknesses.

This theory, if true, may comfort us now because the the shifting ground beneath our feet will settle again as it has for previous generations.  We’ve done this before, we can do it again.

Theory 2 . . .

proposes more unity for the majority of American history.  Yes, some cultural and political shifts happened over time.  But we consistently maintained faith in the democratic process, and in our reason for being.  Even in the Civil War, the Confederacy broke away not out of a rejection of the American ideal, but out of a belief that they represented the true America.  We had “confidence,” that crucial element of any civilization, even in the midst of our most profound domestic crisis.

But something significant happened in 1965.**  In this year we passed the Voting Rights Act, which could be viewed as the apotheosis of what America was supposed to be.  In this year also we dramatically increased our involvement in Vietnam, again, in some ways I think, out of a belief that this was what we were “supposed” to do.  We increased our troop presence initially at least with the general backing of Congress and the population at large.

However, almost immediately after we passed the Voting Rights Act the riots in America’s cities began.  Rioting continued sporadically in many major cities for the next few years.  Perhaps this was pure coincidence, but I think not, though I would not claim to really understand the reasons for the violence.  But I think that part of the reason might be an intuition that we had “done all we could do,” but that it wasn’t enough.  The supreme confidence we had in our democratic way of life taught us that things would always improve, but now we knew better.  Shortly after our troop surge in Vietnam waves of self-doubt began surging through the country.

The two phenomena are likely connected, though I’m not sure how.

Along with this, the counter-culture “hippie” movement went mainstream into popular culture and eventually most of academia.  Western icons like the Beatles went to India to learn see the world in a non-western way.  We lost confidence in our own culture, and we have not regained it.    We had never agreed fully on the why we did what we did, but we had agreed on what we did.  After this era we could no longer claim this for ourselves, and this makes the modern shift much different than others in our history.  The lack of political flexibility may have hastened the at least seeming collapse of the principles that guided us.  Some of the “vomiting up” of our past in some areas of our culture seems willfully self-induced.^

Recently The Guardian ran a great article about Tory MP Rory Stewart.  Stewart got a great education and attempted on two occasions to serve in difficult postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His comments say much about the state of the western world:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

And later,

In some sense I’m a romantic. I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I’m coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again.

I emphasize that these comments come not from a reactionary revisionist Liberal, but a member of England’s conservative party.

If we agree that we need to “start again,” in some way, will we agree on where to start from, and where we wish to go?


For anyone interested in further thoughts on America’s political culture, check out The Grumpy Old Man podcast with Audrey and Emily here.

*My apologies, I have looked back and forth for this comment and cannot find it again to save my life.

**A possible counter-date might be the end of W.W. II.  As Arnold Toynbee regretfully admitted, democracies are not well-equipped to handle something like nuclear weapons, though, so far no horrifying apocalypse.

^Trump gets rightly accused for excessive negativity, but why does no one focus on the obvious negativity from the Left?  Here is Clive Crook, via Marginal Revolution . . . 

Trump’s critics complain about his relentless invoking of crisis — despite agreeing with him that the system is collapsing. Conservatives keep telling us that the American project is in mortal danger, that liberty itself is at stake. Liberals keep telling us that global capitalism is wrecking everything that’s decent in society, that the U.S. is institutionally racist, and America’s traditional values are so much hypocrisy. I think back to the rapturous reception accorded by the left in 2014 to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” which argued, you may recall, that capitalism is an engine of injustice, headed for self-destruction; progressives everywhere nodded wisely in agreement. Here’s what puzzles many of them today: Why does Trump have to be so negative?

8th Grade: An Introduction to Civilizations


I hope the school is going well for you and your family.  I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.

As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview.  I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves.  Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island).  They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.

We discussed whether or not  this be could be termed ‘civilization.’  Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’  While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.

The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.”  Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.

I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image.  The first thing we see about God is that He creates.  A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part.   If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life?  Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves.  Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.

This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations.  What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function?  Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives.  While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are.  While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other.  God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.

We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:


Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together.  You would need to agree on a location to meet.  For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so.  Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist.  But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations.  When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress.  Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive.  On the flip side, some geographies present such an extraordinary challenge that man’s nearly heroic adaptation to them binds them into such narrow confines as to stunt the growth of civilizations (one might think of desert nomads or Eskimo peoples in the Arctic).

Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.


No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.”  We neither know all or can do all things well.  We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.

A strict barter economy makes perfect sense.  I have apples, you have wood.  If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value.  With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger.  Barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility.  Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc.  Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.

A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals.  But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat?  You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal.  The same is true of paper money.  In itself, it’s only a piece of paper.  You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat.  The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.

A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.


Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization.  We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us.  For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all.  We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.

Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people.  They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.


Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization.  Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows.  If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example.  This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs.  We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.

I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization.  As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” or to put it another way, “You are what you worship.”

Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service.  A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on.  Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship.  This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.

Many modern historians often make materialistic arguments for the origin of civilization.  They will say things such as, “When river valley ‘x’ began to dry up the people came together to maximize their food input and begin to specialize.  From this early social organization governments arose, and then these governments codified religious belief to enforce their power.”

And so on, and so on.

I entirely disagree with these kinds of explanations, at least as the primary explanatory concept.  Such theories completely misunderstand human nature.  Why do relationships happen?  We do not enter into a relationship with people based on the need to survive.  We are made for relationship (“It is not good for man to be alone”).  We are drawn together by our common loves, by our common worship.  We were made for worship, and this is why religion forms the heart of any civilization.


In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time.  A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs.   In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths.  Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.

My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas.  These elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.

My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.

Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality.  We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us.  Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire.  I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end.  We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.

Thank you again for all your support.


Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: “Bueller. . . Bueller. . .”

Greetings to all,

Are we sure that History matters?

This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.

A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past.  This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”

But why should we accept it?  What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today?   “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.”  Is this what school really means?  Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”

It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland.  The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:

  • We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices.  If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
  • We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur.  Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us.  Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences would be so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).

Such things may seem so commonplace that they do not need to be defended, but in fact, those who buy into certain postmodern assumptions about identity and language would likely not agree with the above propositions.

In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image.  I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:

  • In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void.  He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern.  In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on.  He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation.  So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings.  History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
  • God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct.  If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.

God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity.  But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.

  • Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God.  While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
  • Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
  • Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.

History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups  have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations.  But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived.   Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics.  Our differences remain skin deep.  Rod Dreher (an Orthodox Christian) recently interviewed Louis Betty, a scholar of the work of the modern French author Michael Houllebecq.  Neither Betty or Houllebecq profess any allegiance to Christianity, but Betty’s observation about the belief of the image of God in man are revealing.  He commented,

More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.

The full article is here for any who are interested.

We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization.  We all seek order and coherence.  We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on.  In this way we image the God who made us.  Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms.  We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives.  Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.

1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.”  This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed.  Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants.  In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states.  We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives.  We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).

Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History.  Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment.  We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.”  No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture.  If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.

Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment.  We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.


Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Let’s Pretend

Greetings to all,

It’s always exciting to begin a new year, and I have enjoyed the students and our interactions.  I trust that we will have a great year together.

We begin the year resuming the story of Rome in 44 B.C., after the death of Julius Caesar.  I am aware that for new students, it is not easy to pick up the story in the middle.  We have reviewed the context of Caesar’s assassination, but I would urge all students (and parents if you wish) to read this and this — both will hopefully help provide some additional insight into the background from Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.  I would also suggest a review the Five Elements of Civilization that  formed the backbone of the 8th Grade Ancient History class.  If anyone wishes to review that (especially new students), look here.

To get new students up to speed, we went quickly through the first two of Rome’s three stages.  The first stage was the monarchy phase (753-508 B.C.), the second the Republic (508-44 B.C.).  Whatever their differences, both phases showed forth Rome’s main characteristics:

  • An emphasis on tradition.  Rome looked back to the past for guidance, not forward to the future.  They valued stability over change.
  • Rome began as an agrarian oriented society, which usually goes hand-in-hand with tradition oriented societies.  Though Rome began to develop a wealthy merchant class around 100 B.C., the ruling elite always thought of themselves as farmers.
  • In the Republic phase, they shared and divided power amongst different people and institutions, though usually monopolized by the nobility.  They feared that a concentration of power, especially in executive offices, would bring about a tyrannical government.

We spent this week reviewing the decline of the Roman Republic, setting the stage for our look at the Roman Empire and Augustus next week.   I wanted to with a few main themes:

1. Don’t Pretend

We reviewed the basics of the structure of the Republic, and how this helped form Rome’s identity, along with their self-image.  In Rome’s eyes, they were, and had always been, a nation of self reliant farmers.  But Rome changed over time, and because of Rome’s strong (at least stated) belief in tradition, Rome never felt the need to change. When they did change, they usually pretended that they were, in fact, not changing at all.

Next week we will discuss how potentially dangerous this attitude can be.  For example, a couple years ago during the summer I got  a minor shoulder injury at the beach.  Thinking myself to be 24 instead of the 38 I was at the time, after a few days I used the muscles much too soon and tweaked it all over again.  I need to realize that things take longer to heal at 38 than they did at 24, however sad a realization this might be!  This is all the more true for me at 41.   If I were to continue to pretend to be 24 the damage and bodily dysfunction would grow worse.  Imagine if a whole civilization did this, and what consequences would be in store for people that did so.

As the Republic collapsed, the distance between Rome’s self-image and reality grew wider and wider.  Will Augustus help solve the problem, or will he exacerbate it?

2. The Power and Vulnerability of Tradition

Most of us have probably experienced the positive power of tradition.  It provides structure, and sometimes comfort to our lives. Many families have holiday traditions that add depth and meaning to the occasion.  Tradition seems to have a magical power of sorts — we do something because that’s what we do, and it works.  In this way, tradition can be stronger than law.  It has a power all its own.

But the spell of tradition can be easily broken.  There is nothing, for example, to stop you from violating tradition.  Once you stop, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  Tradition’s power can be broken in a moment, whereas law takes much longer to whittle away.  Rome prided itself on being guided by the past, of “not departing from the ways of their fathers.”  Yet a century of civil war eroded most, if not all of those “old ways.”

Did they perceive this truth?  Can a tradition oriented society make necessary adaptations?  It’s safe to say that nearly every civilization would likely collapse after so much inner conflict and turmoil.  Rome will survive under Augustus, but they will pay a steep price to do so, as we shall see.

Next week we will look at some of the dilemmas facing Augustus as he ruled Rome, and see how the dynamic of ‘pretending’ likely pushed him into the disastrous Battle of Tuetonborg Forest.  We will also ask the question, “Should you ever trade liberty for security?”



Entourage Trauma

In his wonderful book, Lost in the Cosmos Walker Percy guides his readers into uncomfortable (but also funny) questions about the human condition. In one scenario, he asks us to imagine a famous movie star stopping in a small town local grocery store. On the one hand, there is the prospect that he will be recognized and fawned over. He will have to take selfies, make witty remarks, give autographs, and so on. He will have to assume something of a mask. On the other hand–what if, having prepped himself for this eventuality, no one recognized him at all? Which is the worse fate?

Thinking about this dilemma made more sympathetic for athletes who bring entourages with them wherever they go. I used to see this phenomena motivated purely by ego and money. Now it looks like a coping mechanism for an entirely weird situation. Back in my father’s day athletes often had off-season jobs and lived in neighborhoods with other middle class families. Some had great renown but to see them you usually had to go in person. No highlight reels existed, so slow-motion footage, to make them seem super-human. How does a 23 year-old deal with extreme fame and fortune for having the talent of pretending to be someone else or putting a ball in a round cylinder? Such success could be traumatic, and the entourage a means of dealing with the world at a distance.

We can make similar diagnoses of cultures in general.

Historical comparisons of one era to another are no doubt tricky. We assume that anyone can easily make one thing look like another by selective choosing of our material. I admit that this was my first reaction to Kirby Farrell’s Post Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90’s. Farrell attempts to link the 1890’s and the 1990’s examining its culture (books and movies) through the tense of personal and cultural trauma. The neat 100 year gap seems all too convenient at first glance.

I have mixed feelings about the book, which I experienced as a combination of excellent insights and thoughts that Farrell wielded the hammer of psychoanalysis and saw everything as a nail. It is possible, for example, that if a character in a story drinks a cup of coffee, it may be a simple background detail and not meant to conjure the idea of fetishizing the exotic, or some other such trope. And, while he cites a variety of examples of similar themes in the two decades, he never seeks to prove that the 1890’s/1990’s had more focus on his themes than other decades. Granted–proving this would involve a different kind of writing and research, but its lack allows for doubt about his thesis.

This premise nonetheless intrigued me. Certain things about the 1990’s in retrospect appear strange. I distinctly remember fearing nuclear war in the early 1980’s. But we first win the Cold War, and then the first Persian Gulf war in overwhelming fashion my senior year of high school. I remember thinking that a burden had lifted, that skies had cleared. The 1990’s–good times, right?

And yet, in looking back . . .

If we take music, for example, we see that in the 1980’s, songs about fun, love, and pastel colors routinely topped the charts in a time when many had real fears of nuclear annihilation. But almost immediately after the Cold War, grunge music dominated the airwaves. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, etc. celebrated anger, alienation, confusion, and disillusionment. Fashion changed from accentuating and celebrating oneself with shoulder pads and coifed hair to wallowing in degradation with greasy hair, ripped jeans, and heroin chic.

None of this seemed odd at the time to me–it just was. I suppose some might tell me to get over myself, that culture changed because it changed, with no reason behind it. But if that’s true than there are no reasons for anything. Three explanations, then, present themselves to me:

  • People are by nature self-indulgent, and having no crises to validate us, we invented crisis to grant ourselves legitimacy.
  • Democracies especially need an outside enemy to maintain social cohesion and a sense of purpose–recall what happened to Rome’s republic after they conquered Carthage and Greece. Rome turned on itself as a body politic. But being less communally oriented than the ancient Romans, who destroyed their public institutions, we turned to destroy ourselves as individuals (i.e., heroin chic and ripped jeans)
  • We faced a (clinically) real sense of psychological trauma that fits a ‘normal’ pattern of human experience. Our cultural obsessions of the 1990’s could be termed not “self indulgent,” or ” typical of democracies,” but typical of modern man in general. The two decades had western man face a similar kind of challenge that evoked a similar response.

This last premise forms the basis of Farrell’s book.

He asserts that the 1890’s and the 1990’s shared important things in common:

  • The 1890’s saw the closing of the frontier for America and western Europe. As Cecil Rhodes remarked, “The world is all carved up now.” The idea of the problem of “no frontier” would be taken up as a major theme in American history, beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner.
  • In the 1990’s we had the sense of the “End of History,” with no enemies on the horizon, and nothing to do with ourselves.
  • The 1890’s had the sense that they had gone so far, that good times could not last. The encounter with the ‘other’ overseas would surely rebound and perhaps destroy them. They felt their culture endangered.
  • Our efforts to win the Cold War took into Asia, Africa, and South America. Our contact with the ‘other’ brought on the infamous ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1990’s–the sense with many that the key aspects of our identity faced grave threats.
  • Many accounts exist of people describing dread in confronting the enormous scale of life introduced by the Industrial Revolution. Yes, by the 1890’s people had lived with this change for nearly a generation. But the 1890’s saw the application of electricity to society begin, just as the 1990’s saw the internet begin to become part of the everyday. Both inventions dramatically altered our experience of creation, eradicating natural boundaries and expanding the scope of life unnaturally.

All of these factors combined gave us a real sense of dislocation, as we had lost our bearings and become unmoored. The man of internet lives everywhere and nowhere. The similarities asserted between the decades, which seemed arbitrary to me at first, make more sense upon reflection.

Farrell’s best insights come when he discusses the concept of the prosthetic, by which he means what we add to ourselves in attempt to make ourselves whole. An athlete’s entourage, for example, can be seen as a prosthetic, an artificially constructed way to deal with the world, to make us whole. In Schindler’s List, for example, Schindler creates much of his cache with Nazi elites through providing more and more extreme forms of entertainment. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” The trauma that the Nazi’s inflicted on others cannot help but rebound back at them. To cope with this and to create something of an internal balance, or something of an escape, they douse themselves with physical pleasures–they escape their misery through a kind of “beserking.”* He cites numerous examples of how various forms of culture in the 1990’s manifested something similar–grunge music among them.

I remember reading parts of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, her examination of life in Europe before W.W. I. In the preface, she mentioned that she thought to find a calm and tranquil world shaken out of a slumber of sorts by the war. Instead, she saw a world even in the 1890’s on the edge of its seat psychologically, and to a lesser extent, politically. Like 1990’s America, 1890’s western Europe stood atop the world, seemingly having it all. And yet–that fact seemingly hurt them more than it helped.

Farrell cites the novels of H.G. Wells from this period, almost all of them having an apocalyptic subtext. Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes’ whole existence on trauma–unable to handle real life, Holmes must live through the prosthetic of the trauma of others. The art of the briefly dominant pre-Raphaelite school focused so often on Arthurian themes of the end of a golden age, of mourning and loss. This style appears just as out of place as the dominance of Nirvana and Pearl Jam right after winning the Cold War. It would seem as if the golden age should be beginning, not ending. Farrell suggests that we could not handle the scale of life, and the power it conferred–“winning” as a kind of trauma. Oscar Wilde, the man of the 1890’s, seemed unable to function without masks–and in fact he celebrated the very idea of people masking themselves to others. As he wrote about in A Picture of Dorian Gray, however, those masks hid deeper and darker realities.

All in all, Farrell had too much of psychoanalytic lens on his subject to completely convince me of the connection between the 1890’s and the 1990’s. Not everything comes from trauma. But–he got a lot farther than I thought he would.


*With this term Farrell references the Viking warriors, who would put themselves into a frenzied state before going into battle, no doubt to disassociate themselves in some ways from the death they inflicted.

The Secret of Fiery Women

Though issues surrounding COVID and race occupy our present discourse, we will likely see the question of women in our society revisited soon. Questions about patriarchy and equal pay have not played themselves out yet, and democracy, which often favors abandoning tradition and rapid change, will likely provide a platform for us to hash these issues out more fully.

Camille Paglia–certainly no conservative–has argued that women in traditional societies actually had a great deal of power, maybe even more than in the modern west. Coming from an Italian background, she observed large family gatherings and saw women deciding the course of events, the menu, etc. while the men mostly stood around and looked under the hoods of cars.*

We think of Rome as a masculine society, with its emphasis on conquest, the ‘pater familias,’ and their Senate. And yet, it appears that the most important job in Rome belonged to women–their Vestal Virgins.

We moderns might blanch at such a statement. We rarely talk about the importance of religion, and certainly never would dream of thinking about virginity as even remotely resembling a civilizational issue. But Robin Lorsch Wildfang (who doesn’t wish that their own name was Robin Lorsch Wildfang?) reminds us in her useful book Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, that the Romans were not moderns. We have borrowed so much from Rome for our political and legal system. And yet, anyone perusing this book knows a vast gulf separates our two civilizations.

I give credit to Wildfang for telegraphing exactly the nature of her work. As a reader, one knows that the author will give you densely packed facts with gobs of footnotes, with little overall agenda. We read these books for enjoyment no more than we eat those sawdust-like “power bars” for the taste. But both deliver on their promise. So many other books fail on this account.

Several times Wildfang mentions that, “Without the Vestals and their cult, in the eyes of Romans there would be no Rome.” Roman Vestals had unique privileges among women in Rome especially regarding their property rights. They could also suffer the most severe forms of punishment. But their duties seem to boil down to:

  • Their maintenance of the sacred fire, which always had to stay lit
  • Their oversight of a secret storeroom/offerings of basic crops
  • The continuation of the virginity as long as they served (Vestals usually began their service between 8-10 years old, and had to serve for 30 years at least, but could leave after that time).

How we interpret these duties will say much about how one interprets the past.

For the fire . . .

Ovid, Cicero, Dionysius of Hallicanarsus, and Plutarch all agree that the Vestals maintained the sacred fire because fire consumes rather than bears fruit. The “dryness” of fire would be linked then with their virginity. The ancient authors talk of two fires, one of Vulcan, the other of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

But Wildfang looks for an alternative explanation. Rather than delve into the symbolism here for an explanation, she stresses the antiquity of the rite. Since the Vestal cult predated Rome’s founding, we should see only Rome’s desire to maintain its ties to antiquity, and the various associations some make to virginity and fruitfulness (or its lack) become unnecessary.

I admire Wildfang’s thoroughness and academic integrity, but I rarely approve of Occam’s razor as it applies to historical conclusions. Here at least, it just seems to convenient, too much of an “easy out” for us moderns.

I think that we gain interesting insights by taking these sources along with the scope of Rome’s history. This in turn might lead to understanding the sources in a different way. Wildfang mentions in a few places that Vestals entered into the order via “abduction” somewhere between 6-10 years old. This abduction rite happened with the father’s consent, as the girls were taken from their families in front of their father in a prepared ceremony of sorts. We may blanch at the fact that the girls likely rarely consented themselves, but this in itself gives an important clue as to the meaning of their order for Rome.

Of all the peripheral clues she gives as to the meaning of the abduction ceremony, Wildfang never deal with the story of Rome’s founding, which happened in part through the abduction of Sabine women. Romulus and his male cohorts invite a variety of women on the pretext of a religious festival. They then basically kidnap them and “marry” them–no doubt forcibly for many of them. In the telling Livy refuses to sugarcoat or condemn the deed. He seems to shrug his shoulders over it. Simply put, the Roman state could not have a future without families and children. Maybe this tale has within it some deep symbolism. Maybe the practical Romans just stated the facts and expected one to deal with it. Whatever the case, the abduction into the Vestal order mirrors this event rather evenly. This comparison makes more sense to me when we recall that Romulus’ mother Rhea was a Vestal herself, and begat her twin boys either through the rape/seduction of Mars or some other guy, depending on the tale.

Thus, I think we can say that the Vestals “married” Rome when they entered the order. So I am not sure that we should view the fire they had to maintain so precisely as “sterile.” If the Romans thought of this fire as “fruitless” why punish them so severely for letting it go out?**

If we think of fire as a “heavenly” substance of the “air” and we recall their duty to maintain the sacred storehouse of food, we might see these two elements as a reflection of marriage itself, a union of the masculine and feminine, of Sky father and Earth mother. Relations with another man would effectively then become adultery to Rome itself. The women maintain the fire possibly because women in general are the foremost keepers of the marriage institution. For example, Penelope worked harder to maintain her marriage than Odysseus did.

No Vestal rites means no marriage of heaven and earth, and so no families, and no “future” for Rome. Thus, the Romans took the extinguishing of the Vestal fire after the Battle of Cannae as a worse omen than the massive death toll of the battle itself.

We see Wildfang employ Occam’s razor again with another related issue. If the vestals had sexual relations, they faced a charge of “incestum.” Certainly by the time period covered in the book, the word had just the meaning we would assume–sex with a family member. Wildfang can’t grasp the sense of this. Why would having sex with average Joe Roman be specifically incestuous? Seeking clarity, she suggests that “incestum” didn’t mean “incest,” but “impurity.” The Latin for impurity is “incastum,” so it “makes sense” to Wildfang that, because incastum predates incestum as a word, “incestum” need not be a special, more horrible form of impurity. Best to translate “incestum” in this case as simply impurity, i.e., incastum.

Again, I protest. If “incestum” was not a such an unusual crime, why the unusual punishment of being buried alive? Also, let us assume the Romans meant what they said, when they said it. They had two different words, and distinguished between them. Whatever the original context, in the time period Wildfang examines they had different words with different meanings. Finally, I think the natural meaning of “incestum” could make sense within my interpretation of the vestals “marrying” Rome. Maybe, to have relations with any Roman meant, then, having relations with a family member.

Consider this line of thought above speculative. I am obviously no expert. But I think this makes certain odd pieces of the vestal puzzle fit together.

Wildfang talks briefly about the political influence vestals had on rare occasions. Normally they stayed out of politics, but every so often they intervened. Why didn’t the vestals intervene more, or if they had only a religious function, why intervene at all? If we think of the vestals as married to Rome, per my earlier suggestion, our own experience of family dynamics helps explain this difficulty Wildfang mentions.

I had one set of grandparents who had a lot of influence over family events and dynamics. This influence came not from frequent edicts. They had no need to issue them, and certainly they did not look to control anyone. Their influence came by our love and respect for them. My grandfather might occasionally make a pronouncement or two. Of course we listened, but with my grandfather, we might discuss or mildly argue with him.

My grandmother made “pronouncements” even more rarely than my grandfather, but when she spoke that meant the end of the matter. In my world, challenging or even disagreeing with my grandmother simply was not possible (though please understand that she was the sweetest person in the world–everyone she knew thought that they were her favorite person–she had that effect on people). When I found out that she was a Yankee fan around the age of 9-10 I could not have been more stunned, or had my world more shaken (my dad spent formative years in Brooklyn and we were Dodger fans by birth). With my grandfather, I might have argued the case. Yet, I received this news from my grandmother in silence. I could conceive of no other reaction.^

The vestals likely had a similar power, but if used too frequently it would likely have diminished. When a plant blooms, what secures its life lies hidden in the earth. So too, the vestals kept their symbolic fruits of the earth hidden as part of their duties. They likely thought that the power of women remained greatest when they chose to conceal rather than reveal. Even the masculine, patriarchal Romans seem to have understood this. Perhaps it was just this overt masculinity allowed them to see the importance of the feminine with clarity.


*Paglia, an self-described atheist and also a lesbian, can speak fondly of ‘tradition’ because of her appreciation for paganism. Perhaps these days, even a pagan could qualify as some kind of conservative.

**I criticize Wildfang for not trusting the ancient sources in regards to “incestum,” but one could throw a similar charge back at me in this instance. Ovid makes a direct reference to linking the flame with the fact that a vestal “yields no seeds.” Dionysius of Halicanarsus makes a similar suggestion, but asserts it only as a suggestion. Plutarch follows Dionysius in making this interpretation one option among many.

In my defense, I would say the following:

  • Ovid seems to play fast, loose, and as he pleases with his material. I see him as something of a prankster. This does not mean he lied or was inaccurate, but I would not trust him on a point of historical accuracy. That was not his aim.
  • Dionysius and Plutarch have more gravitas, but both of them give only “some say” credence to this interpretation.

I think that the general sense of the vestal’s history and Rome’s history guide us better than these texts by themselves. The “first” of Rome’s vestals, Rhea, did “bear fruit” in birthing Romulus. When we combine this fact with the parallel to the abduction of the Sabine women, well . . . that’s my argument for my interpretation. It may not fit with with Ovid, but I don’t think it absolutely goes against the others.

^Another story to illustrate this point . . . I collected baseball cards for a few years growing up. When my grandparents visited she would often take me to the local baseball card shop to make a purchase for me. I remember driving home one day from such a trip–I was about 11 years old–and we saw a beautiful motorcycle pass us on the road. She asked if I liked the motorcycle and I said absolutely I did. She stated, “Those are not safe. If you decide to buy a motorcycle, no more trips to the baseball card store.”

In one sense her comment did not make much sense. By the time I was old enough for a motorcycle she would not be taking me to buy baseball cards (nor would I be collecting them).

But her comment absolutely stuck with me. I put all thoughts of motorcycle riding out of my head immediately. I still hear her voice whenever I take wistful middle-aged man glances at a Harley. But in my 30+ years of knowing her on Earth, this was one of only two times she ever told me not to do something. She shot very, very few “bullets” but those hit their mark and left an indelible impression

Malleus Maleficarum

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (translation–possibly, “The Hammer for Devils/Witches/, i.e., “Malefactors”) ranks way up there among the more strange historical documents I have read. Published in 1484, this tome tells one all about witches and other sundry works of the devil. It deals with the reality of the supernatural quite openly and frankly, and in this way strikes us as “pre-modern.” And yet, the “hammer” the title alludes to appears to strike hardest through the use of the farthest reaches of the logic parsing of the scholastic method. Those familiar with the Summa Theologica (dating more than two centuries prior to the Malleus) can testify to Thomas Aquinas’ clarity and brevity, even if he relies possibly too much on Aristotelian logic. Aquinas leaves a certain amount of space and room to breathe in his work. It is that mystical fringe that exists in Aquinas’ best writing that gives it its staying power.

Not so Kramer and Sprenger. Though grudgingly–I have to admire their ability to go on for pages on end, giving all counterarguments incredible deference and losing the reader in a labyrinth, before finally turning the battleship slowly round towards their correct conclusion. I firmly believe that Christians should take the supernatural seriously–much more so than many do today. However, one must wonder of the efficacy of extended discussion on “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be Entirely Removed from the Body”–which is only Question IX of Part One, of the First Part, or what final precautions should be observed in the trial of a witch in the eleventh action of the second examination (3rd Part, 2nd Head, q. 16).

At least one does get the sense that Kramer and Sprenger enjoy their work. Here is a very mild excerpt . . .

If it be accordance with the Catholic faith to maintain that in order to bring about some effect of magic, the devil must intimately cooperate with some witch, or whether, one without the other, that is to say, the devil without the witch, or conversely, could produce the same effect.

And the first argument is this, that the Devil can bring about an effect of magic without the help of any witch.  So St. Augustine holds . . . and we learn from Holy Scripture of the disasters which fell upon Job, . . . which the Devil himself was able to bring about, with God’s permission.  What a superior power has within itself to do, it may do without reference to a lesser power.

So too, an inferior power may work within its “sphere” to produce effects without reference to a power greater than itself.  For Blessed Albertus Magnus says in his treatise De Pasionibus Aeris that rotten sage, if used according to certain specifications and thrown into running water, will arouse fearful tempests and storms.  

Moreover it may be said that the devil makes use of the witch not because he has any need of her agency, but because he seeks the damnation of the witch.  We may refer to what Aristotle says in the 3rd book of his Ethics, where Evil is a voluntary act . . . 

But an opposite opinion holds, that the Devil, being unlike man, cannot readily do harm to man without the effect of material agency, such as the instrumentality of witches. For every act, some kind of contact must be established.  And many hold this to be proven by the text of St. Paul to the Galatians, where the gloss on the text who have singular, and fiery eyes, who by a mere look can harm others.  And Avicenna [Abn Ibn Sina] also bears this out, in Naturalism book 3, “Very often the soul may have an impact on the body of another, for such is the influence of the eyes.”  And the same opinion by Ali Ghaza in the fifth book of his Physics  . . .   St. Thomas too speaks of this in the Summa, part I, q. 117, whereupon he states that the influence of the soul may be concentrated in the eyes. 

Without any mental powers insensible bodies may produce effects, and so a living man, if he pass near the corpse of a murdered man, is often seized with fear though unaware of the dead body.  Moreover, it would seem that most extraordinary and miraculous events come to passby thte workings of the power of nature, and St. Gregory points out in his Second Dialogue. The saints perform miracles, sometimes by prayer, sometimes by their power alone.  St. Peter prayed and Tabitha was restored to life.  By rebuking Ananias and Saphira who told a lie, he slew them without any prayer.  Therefore a man by his mental influence can change the condition of another material body.*  

Can any doubt that a man with courage will warm his body, and a man with fear will cool and enfeeble his body?

St. Isidore in Etymologies calls witches guilty of greater sin, for they stir up and confound the elements with the aid of the Devil, and bring about terrible storms and tempests.  And Vincent of Beauvais, quoting many learned authorities in his Speculum Historiale, says that he who first practiced magical arts was Zoroaster, in the line of Ham, son of Noah, and according to St. Augustine in the City of God, Ham laughed aloud when he was born, showing that he would give service to the Devil.

When comparing Aquinas and these authors, I reminded of analogy used I believe by both Toynbee and C.S. Lewis–that bacon and eggs smells so much better when hungry at 9 am, as opposed to when satiated later in the day. Even in the text above, though I largely agree with the conclusion, the method conjures up the smell of bacon and eggs after one has eaten. The scholastic method has run its course.

That late-medievals thought seriously about witches should surprise no one. But to many moderns, the breadth of discussion, the familiarity with many texts both within and without the Christian tradition, will surprise many. When we disagree fundamentally with others, we assume that they do not have actual reasons for their belief. We assume their ignorance, selfishness, or some other such flaw. About 150 years later, an Ambrosian monk named Francesco Guazzo published a companion volume, the Compendium Maleficarum. In Book I, Chapter III he writes,

Any man who maintained that all effects of magic were true, or who believed that they were all illusions, would be a radish rather than a man.

This spirit of balance characterizes the work, which a modern must acknowledge even if one believed that witches and demons did not exist.

Of course the Devil works in various ways, both through physical and spiritual/mental means. I have no thoughts on the exact nature of the Devil’s work regarding COVID-19. What we can say in general is that the Devil always seeks to sow confusion, doubt, and fear. He is the accuser, the divider of the brethren. Just as he seeks to divide us from God, so too he brings death–a literal decomposition of soul from body, and of the various connections in our physical form. He seeks to “decompose” meaning as well, and we have certainly seen this in our society the last few months.

The uncertain nature of the disease relates strongly to this decomposition of meaning. But I feel sure that others factors must be at play, and I wonder at the manifestation of this confusion as it relates to masks. Some people, given their circumstances, probably should wear masks, but I am curious about the vast majority of us who have options and feel the tension between wearing/not wearing them. What motivates our choices, and why do those choices often divide along political lines? Liberals want more mask wearing, conservatives seem to wear them less–although the terms “liberal” and “conservative” lack a defined meeting. We should approach the subject with the method of the Malleus in mind, aware that not everyone who believes in wearing masks is a coward or out to control everyone, and those who eschew masks may not always be selfish jerks, or ignorant of “Science.”

I am sure that something else is going on, but not sure exactly what. Consider what follows speculative, and certainly incomplete . . .

Perhaps the most obvious connection might relate to debates over the last few years around free speech. Progressives want to limit certain kinds of speech in certain places to protect the “vulnerable” minority. Conservatives push against this. So progressives stress protection from the disease, even if this protection should extend far beyond those directly at risk. Conservatives who favor a more rough and tumble approach to speech might then favor the same approach to the disease. We should be tough, have thick skins, and so on.

Perhaps this might go some way to explaining the difference with mask attitudes now. But just 50 years ago, liberals championed free speech, not conservatives. And–liberals tend to prefer longer shut-downs of the economy, even though the shut-down obviously hurts the poor far more than the rich. Restrictions on the economy–favored more by progressives–also will hurt illegal immigrants–another progressive issue.** It makes sense that conservatives want order, sanctity, protection, and liberals would want freedom, and the knocking down of boundaries. But part of the confusion the world experiences lies in the lack of coherent meaning in our political designations.

With rates of abuse, depression, suicide, time on screens, opioid and alcohol use, etc. all going way up during the quarantine, we must realize that the temptation to go a bit nuts will significantly increase. And when our visible structures of decision-making and common institutions fail us–as they largely have during our various recent crises, we will revert to archetypal symbolic modes of being. When the visible symbols of unity fails us, we will retreat inward even subconsciously to find meaning and direction.

These subconscious symbolic actions make themselves perhaps most evident with masks. I have no solid thoughts here as to why they have caused such disagreement among good people. I think we have to go beyond politics (i.e., does the government have the right to order this or not?). And–let us borrow from the Malleus and assume that the Devil would like nothing better than to tear us apart. And to borrow again from Sprenger and Kraemer–no doubt both sides have good arguments that could fill many pages. I shudder to think how many the two of them could find to apply to the mask argument.^

When we think of masks, we should think of the use of veils, for masks function much like a veil. Veils have very little role in our society today. Even in weddings, very few brides today would consider wearing a veil. But most ancient societies used veils (or something like them) in many religious settings, and certainly for weddings. In the ancient world veils would be used to cordon off portions of a temple, for example. You would use veils as means of

  • Protecting the people from the power/holiness of what lay behind the veil, or
  • Protecting what was special/holy from intrusion by the people.

We live in a society that builds on a foundation of “openness”–trade with others, traveling from place to place with few barriers, free speech, etc. and so the notion of veils initially strikes us as odd. This “open” view of life is certainly part of existence. We cannot sustain our own lives. Whenever we eat anything, we take the life of something else into our bodies and incorporate into our own lives–this holds true for plants just as it does for pigs and cows. We do not generate life for ourselves. We must be filled from outside ourselves and ultimately, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But . . . we must be “closed” to some things in order to survive. We cannot play in traffic, swim with sharks, or take candy from strangers. And other things are so powerful that we can only have a little bit of at a time lest it destroy us, like whiskey, for example. In ancient Israel the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once a year, alone, with a rope tied around his leg to remove him in case he died from the experience.

As to veils for brides, both of the above purposes could fit. On the one hand, the bride is the most precious “item” of the day, and she is meant for her husband only. Thus she should not be “revealed” until the ceremony is completed. So too, to veil the bride is to honor her beauty and to protect us from it. This may not make sense historically or scientifically, but certainly it does mythologically–recall “the face that launched 1000 ships,” or Lucy’s desire in The Dawn Treader to say a spell that would make her “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals,” and have men and nations fight over her. In the medieval Marian office of “None” (the ninth hour) the antiphon before the psalms hearkens to the power of the beauty of the feminine:

Thou art fair and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array.

Song of Solomon 6:4

To wear masks in public places may be entirely appropriate and necessary, but we should understand what it means. It means, in certain respects, that we cannot act as a community of trust that mutually shares life together. And this is not necessarily our fault, as the insidious nature of the virus means that one can have it and spread it without any knowledge. But neither is it a trifling thing. To “veil” ourselves means that we set ourselves apart from society. One cannot have a conversation with a mask on–one cannot really share life with another with a mask on. It is terribly ironic that we have to “come together” in such polarized times to essentially isolate ourselves socially from each other. As Jean-Claude Larchet writes,

Through our body we reach out and communicate with others–by exchanging glances, smiles, handshakes, and so on.  It is through our body that others gain their first impressions of us–our character, or our mood at the time.  Our body both reveals and hides us from others . . . 

I believe this accounts for much of the confusion about masks. Larchet rightly suggests that even small physical gestures of communication that we normally make at the grocery store become impossible with masks. Circumstances ask us to hold an impossible tension in our minds and we can’t quite do it. Telling the difference won’t always be easy.

In such times we may want to reach out and look for solutions and healing in what is distant from us–in our political leadership. These days we will not find it there, and likely were never meant to. We should return to our immediate center–our churches, families, and friends–a Malleus Malleficarum for our times


*I think Jonathan Pageau makes some good points here about the validity of the so-called “Evil Eye,” tradition, derided by some materialists.

**I have heard some suggest that those out of work should get checks from the rich/the government, and so what’s the problem? This strikes me as not ‘progressive’ in any sense. What about the ‘dignity of labor’ so hallowed by the Marxist tradition? I find the ‘just give them a check and they should be happy’ mentality degrading and paternalistic. Perhaps it is necessary–but don’t dismiss the cost to the soul.

^A brief parody of Kraemer and Sprenger (with all references entirely made up)

There are many who say that we should not wear masks in public. For has not Aristotle said in his Physic that, “to one is one thing, and another, like unto it, has the same properties” (B.V-8.12). So we see that all things “come unto all other things” (Averroes, De Civitate, Q. 12, p.4, S.4), so then it follows naturally that we follow The Almagest and declare that we maintain the motion of the “heavenly spheres,” which in this case means, our bodies. For Ptolemy has said much that many of the wise would hardly dare to gainsay.

And should not our bodies be compared to the heavenly spheres? For Plotinus has called us all a microcosm of the worthy cosmos, as have many holy men, though others have not agreed (Quintus, et al, Deus Mirabilius, Book II, p. 8). And is not the face the “bearer of all things” (Isocrates, Etymologies Part II, 6.7.8)? We bear with one another, then, for how else shall we live if we bear not with another, as Ulfin stated in Amor Arondus Ibid (Bk. II, p. 5)?

But others deny it, stating along with Avicenna that, “As things move, so they are distinct, for not all motion is equal (Figures, Book V.3-1).” Now if motion is not equal, than it means that motion must be set in a hierarchy, and to appear contrarian is not in the habit of the scholar, who seeks to have “all put in its proper place (Fabius, Magnus Opus, Bk. 1.3).” . . .